The Adult Male Gaze of Alt Teen Queens
Gasps were heard across the world this past summer when teen queen, electro-pop icon Billie Eilish was spotted taking photos with fans in — make sure you’re sitting down — a tank top.
Yeah, a tank top. Of the white, ribbed, thick strapped variety, to be exact.
To be fair, those who follow Eilish or are at all tuned in to the pop culture zeitgeist know that this otherwise void-where-a-fashion-choice-should-be was actually groundbreaking for the singer-songwriter. The seventeen-year-old is known for her distinctive street style, which usually consists of brightly colored pants and hoodies that, as your passive aggressive aunt might say in a style critique, nearly swallow her whole.
Eilish addressed her signature look in Calvin Klein’s #MyTruth ad campaign this spring.
"I never want the world to know everything about me. I mean that's why I wear big baggy clothes: nobody can have an opinion because they haven't seen what's underneath, you know?,” Eilish explained. "Nobody can be like, she's slim-thick, she's not slim-thick, she's got a flat ass, she got a fat ass. Nobody can say any of that because they don't know.”
Eilish’s approach to clothing was compared to many Muslim women’s choice to veil. Wearing baggy clothing, like wearing a hijab or burka, kept a certain aspect of Eilish’s life, her body, from taking over the conversation about her artistry. Clearly, this is an over simplification of the complex and varied motivations behind veiling and Eilish’s place within that narrative as a white woman. Yet, it’s important to note that her approach is a timeless one.
And, just as Eilish suspected, the second she was seen in something vaguely “revealing”, it became a talking point on Twitter.
Eilish addressed this pop-culture moment in an interview with Elle last week.
“My boobs were trending on Twitter!” she shrieked. “At number one! What is that? Every outlet wrote about my boobs!”
This is the point of the conversation where I remind you that Billie Eilish, while a very popular and successful artist, is also seventeen. Seventeen! Recommended activities for seventeen-year-olds include studying for the SAT, driving your friends around in your mom’s minivan with your newly minted license, setting unnecessarily high expectations for the homecoming dance and NOT getting sexualized by fully grown men on Twitter. Yet, you can guess what happened when the internet got their hands on a photo of Billie Eilish in the same kind of tank top I wore as PJs as an eleven-year-old.
The tragic part of this scenario is that exactly no one was surprised at adult men’s ease in sexualizing a high school age girl. Billie saw it coming, as did every woman who at one time existed within a seventeen-year-old body, especially those who existed in a seventeen-year-old body that was frequently plastered across TVs, computer screens and billboards. As 2019’s reigning alt teen queen, Eilish stands on the shoulders of many alt teen queens before her who have all had their own tumultuous relationships with the (adult) male gaze.
I’m four years older than Eilish. When I was her age and slightly younger, I took inspiration from an alt teen queen of my own time, Sky Ferreira.
Ferreira and Eilish have a lot in common. Both are women singer-songwriters who gained internet followings for their music before getting signed to labels as teens. Both mastered the bleach-blonde-locks and bold-brow combo. Both earned support from other young women with their poignant lyricism.
Yet, Ferriera took an entirely different approach to the issue of sexualization. Instead of keeping her corporeal form out of the public eye, Feriera embraced the inevitable sexualization in an attempt to put the power in her own hands.
Ferriera was 21 when her debut album, one she had worked on since the age of 14, dropped. The iconic cover of the 2013 album, Night Time, My Time, features an image of Ferriera in a green tiled shower. Although she is topless, the cover image reads as incredibly vulnerable, rather than sexual. With smeared lipstick, runny mascara, and defensive body language, Ferriera looks into the camera with scared eyes that seem to blame the viewer for exposing a moment that should have remained personal to her.
While Ferriera was no longer a teen when Night Time, My Time dropped, she was still incredibly young and influenced by her adolescence within the industry.
“People only considered me difficult because I wouldn't just agree with everything they said,” Ferriera said in a Guardian interview at the time. “Like, 50-year-old men telling me how to be a woman!”
And while adult men policing and profiting off of your womanhood throughout your teen years is difficult enough, Ferriera was also dealing with the trauma of a childhood of sexual abuse which confounded the unpleasantness of her treatment as a young woman in the industry and in the public eye.
Yet, Ferriera continued to enact ownership over her own sexuality. In 2016, she became the first Playboy bunny to be a creative collaborator in the issue of the magazine in which she appeared. Notably, the photos were not taken by a man but instead by Ferriera’s close personal friend, photographer Sandy Kim.
Eilish and Ferriera embarked on divergent paths, but their motivation and ultimate destination was the same. Both women have worked overtime to keep their bodies, their sexualities and, by extension, their personhood in their own control within an industry and society that continues to profit off of young women’s anatomies for old dude’s benefits. They are far from alone in their battle.
Women artists in the “alternative” space have a specific relationship to the powers at be that has been a source of empowerment and kinship for me and millions of other young women. Being a woman artist is subversive enough; being a woman artist who dares to exist outside of the traditional pop-star model? That’s next level.
It’s also a privilege that’s too often only afforded to white women in music as women of color are further pigeon-holed into expressing themselves in specific ways. Essence says it best: “For almost a decade, there seemed to be only three lanes for Black women as musical artists: Beyoncé, Rihanna or Nicki Minaj.” All three artists are empowering and subversive in their own right, but there should be limitless options for women of color, not just three molds enforced by the industry.
I’ve seen Billie Eilish compared to (pre-Elon Musk) Grimes, another woman in the alternative space with an avant garde and often oversized signature look. Before them, there was Hayley Williams boldly-colored hair, Avril Lavigne’s neckties and cargo pants, Alanis Morrisette’s flannels, Courtney Love’s prairie gowns and smeared lipstick, Kate Bush’s flair for the theatrical…
None of these choices are ever merely aesthetic. They are never merely about style. They are political, deeply connected to ownership and power. Female sexuality within patriarchy is complex. Female sexuality within capitalist structures is even more so. Women in the spotlight are critiqued for what they do show as much as for what they don’t, adding an extra layer of strategy that distracts from their art.
I went to a Billie Eilish show last year. Drowning in a sea of adoring 16 year old girls, it was clear to me that the ownership she continues to enact over her body is powerful. It has ripples. It inspires a generation of young women to exist in their bodies in the way that feels right to them, with no need for justification beyond that, just like Ferierra inspired me when I was their age.
“You know that's bullshit, don'tcha', babe?,” the sea sang along. “I'm not your party favor.”
About the Author
Victoria Middleton (she/her) is a third year student at The George Washington University studying journalism and mass communication with a minor in women’s, gender and sexuality studies. She discovered her love for writing as a little girl, typing fairytale stories on her parents old Dell and printing them out before taping them into glitter-glue-encrusted cardboard covers. These days, she thinks honest and fully developed stories about women are even better than fairy tales. When she’s not scheming against the male hegemony of the media industry, she can be found thrifting, watching cult films and TV and badly dancing to good music. She has been known to get overly excited about intersectional feminism, astrology and David Lynch.